The Halloween candy has been eaten, the pumpkin pie will be gone by midnight, and sometime tomorrow afternoon I am going to be craving something sweet. To tide me over until holiday cookie season rolls around, I plan on making caramel popcorn, an easy treat that is more satisfying to the candy addict than a pillowcase full of Tootsie Rolls.
According to archaeological evidence uncovered in Mexico and the American Southwest, popcorn has been enjoyed since prehistoric times. But it wasn't until the late 19th century that it became a popular snack. In 1893, popcorn and candy-maker Louis Rueckheim combed his two products to make a confection of popcorn and peanuts covered in molasses. The Cracker Jack was born.
Some people say they loved eating Cracker Jack just to get to the prize buried in the box. Not me. I was strictly in it for the sticky, crunchy popcorn with the occasional surprise of a rich peanut. Homemade caramel popcorn has the same sticky, crunchy appeal, but is so much better than the commercial product. For starters, it is made with lots of real butter. I've found that molasses added to the caramel makes the popcorn soggy. Brown sugar alone gives the candy plenty of molasses flavor, and keeps the homemade candy light and crisp.
There are recipes for caramel popcorn that call for the use of a candy thermometer, but this really isn't necessary. You do have to bring the caramel mixture to a boil, and make sure that it boils for a couple of minutes so the sugar cooks sufficiently. Then, pour it over the popcorn and peanuts, toss well, and bake at a low temperature until the moisture has evaporated from the caramel and the coating is crunchy and dry.
I drizzle my cooled caramel popcorn and peanuts with some melted chocolate. There are plenty of other ways to vary the basic recipe:
Hot and sweet caramel corn Stir 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper into the caramel along with the baking soda. Skip the chocolate.
Spiced caramel corn Replace the peanuts with chopped pecans. Stir 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger into the caramel along with the baking soda. Skip the chocolate.
Bacon caramel corn Skip the peanuts and toss 5 slices crisp-cooked and crumbled bacon with the popcorn before adding the caramel. Skip the chocolate.
Coconut-macadamia caramel corn Substitute coarsely chopped macadamia nuts for the peanuts. Stir 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut into the popcorn and nuts. Drizzle with melted white chocolate instead of melted semisweet chocolate chips.
Chocolate-cherry-almond caramel corn Substitute whole almonds for the peanuts. Sprinkle the caramel corn with the dried cherries as soon as it comes out of the oven and give it a toss before letting it cool.
Espresso caramel corn Substitute walnut pieces for peanuts. Add a tablespoon of instant espresso powder to the butter and sugar.
CHOCOLATE-CARAMEL POPCORN AND PEANUTS
6 cups popped popcorn (from about 1/4 cup unpopped kernels)
1 cup dry-roasted peanuts
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the popcorn and peanuts on the prepared baking sheet.
2. Combine the brown sugar, butter and corn syrup in a heavy pot. Cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil, and then continue to boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda.
3. Pour the caramel over the popcorn and peanuts and stir to coat. Bake, stirring several times, until the popcorn is crisp and dry, about 1 hour. Remove from oven and let cool completely on baking sheet.
4. Combine the chocolate and vegetable oil in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave until chocolate is almost melted. Stir until smooth. Drizzle the chocolate over the popcorn and let stand until chocolate is set, about 1 hour. Break into pieces and store in an airtight container up to 1 week. Makes about 6 cups caramel popcorn.